Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a simple proposal: “Name one thing you can let go of today to lighten your load.”

I expected to get concrete answers: meetings, errands, appointments, household clutter, or chores.

What I got back surprised me.  Most of the answers were not about concrete objects or time-sensitive work, but about habitual thoughts, unproductive emotions, and damaging perceptions.

Here’s a sample of some of the answers:

  • “My obsession with not being able to say ‘no’ to anyone.”
  • “Expectations . . . for myself and others.”
  • “Worry about the unknown.”
  • “Disappointment about things I can’t control.”
  • “Aggravation.”
How to stop wrestling with negative thoughts

Want to release your negative thoughts? Stop treating them like wrestling opponents!

I can even add my personal list of burdens to theirs:

  • Perfectionism.
  • The gnawing fear that I am not doing things right.
  • Annoyance with people who don’t think like me.
  • Frustration when things don’t go my way.
  • Judgement of others and myself
  • The fear that I am being judged.

So it seems that the heaviest burdens we carry  — the things that weigh us down the most in life — are the most insubstantial: our thoughts, our habits, and our emotions.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  If I want to lay down a physical burden, that is easy.  If am carrying a bag of groceries and it feels heavy to me, I put it down on the kitchen counter and . . . voila . . . I am immediately that much lighter. The same can be said of appointments, errands, or chores: I can pick up the phone and reschedule an appointment or (even simpler) I can leave a chore or an errand for another day and I have automatically liberated time and energy in my day.  I have a little more breathing room and I feel lighter.

But our thoughts and our emotions are different, aren’t they? Even though they have no weight and do not show up on our calendars or our to-do lists, they consume enormous amounts of our time and energy. But unlike physical burdens, we can’t simply lay them down.  Wherever we go, they come with us.  And unlike chores, errands, or appointments, we can’t just cross them off our list when we are done with them.  One thought leads to another thought in an endless and exhausting procession.  And our negative emotions take hold of us without notice and refuse to let go until we succumb to their power.

So how do we let go of these burdens? How do we lay down the insubstantial? How do we let go of that which we cannot hold in our hands?

Well, first of all, I think we need to see that thoughts, though they carry no physical weight can literally feel very heavy.  We have real physical responses to them.  Worry can create a twist in the gut.  Fear can make the heart race. Aggravation can give us a headache.  And perfectionism can make us pull our hair out!  Our negative thoughts and emotions feel very real because we have very real, measurable reactions to them.

And unfortunately, wrestling with these thoughts, trying to reason with them, trying to appease them, reacting to them as if they were a genuine, only makes them more powerful.  Imagine you are in a wrestling match with a worthy opponent.  The more time you spend wrestling them, the more skillful they will become in learning ways to wear you down.  The opponent learns your habits.  They learn your vulnerabilities.  Their muscles flex and build.  Until you are no match for them at all.

I have a trick.

Rather than treat these thoughts like adversaries, treat them like well-meaning, but unnecessary guests. And if you think about it, this is true. Every negative thought or emotion you have — from worry to fear to annoyance — is trying to help you.  Trying to protect you.  Trying to keep you intact.  Except they are doing the opposite — they are actually eating away at your strength and consuming your precious time on earth.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of these negative thoughts and emotions — how they are trying to help and how their work ends up being counterproductive:

  • Worry is trying to keep you safe from future harm, but it is actually causing you harm in the present.
  • Judgment is trying to help you discern from what is threatening and what is not, but it may actually be ruling out possibilities that may be opportunities for understanding and growth.
  • Fear is trying to keep you safe from danger, but it may be keeping you from exploring reasonable options.
  • Annoyance is trying to keep bad influences out of your mental and emotional landscape, but it actually wreaking havoc on the very thing is is trying to protect.

You get the idea, I hope.

So what do we do? When these overly-solicitous, pushy “friends” come knocking, rather than succumbing to them (how depleting!), or pushing up against the door with all your might (how exhausting!), or hiding and pretending you are not home (how debilitating!) . . . open the door wide and look them right in the eye.  Yes, that’s right.  Say hello. Recognize them for what they are.  Thank them for what they are trying to do.  Smile politely.  Then send them on their way.  Think of these thoughts and emotions as very persistent vacuum-cleaner salesmen.  They are convinced they have just what you need to keep your house clean and in order. It’s just that you aren’t in the market for what they are peddling. All you need to say is, “Thanks, for coming by.  I am sure your product is very good. But I already have what I need to keep my house clean.  I’m really all set. And good luck to you, today.”  And with that, gently close the door, breathe a sigh of relief, and get on with your work in the world.